Often, American restaurants become the place ethnic cuisine goes to die. We torture it, mangle it and stereotype it until the food bears only passing resemblance to the dishes from which it originated. In Arkansas, Japanese cuisine means big sushi rolls stuffed with cream cheese, slathered in mayo-based sauces and served up with a lump of green horseradish posing as wasabi. Maybe kicked off with an order of edamame and miso soup, or accompanied by the theatrics of a dinner-and-a-show hibachi experience. The quality may vary, but the equation rarely changes.
It only takes one breath as you walk into Kemuri, restaurateur Jerry Barakat’s new Asian-fusion spot in Hillcrest, to know they weren’t happy with that status quo. The woodsy smell of a charcoal fire permeates the nearly 5,000-square-foot space, an unexpected contrast to the sushi bar that welcomes you. It’s clear that Kemuri isn’t just about please-the-masses sushi rolls or teriyaki chicken. It’s about lending Japanese flavors and cooking techniques to all manner of dishes.
It’s not so startling, then, that plate after white ceramic plate of artfully stacked baby back ribs are headed to tables as we study the sashimi selection. Luckily, the ribs are coming from the kitchen and not from some open-air grill set up in the dining room itself, à la hibachi. The smell of the grill wafting in is enough ambiance without going full-blown schtick.
Kemuri’s space is far from kitschy (except for that glowing blue fish tank in the main dining room) and much larger than it seems at first glance. The restaurant is actually two storefronts with two dining areas separated by a narrow hallway and bar. The glowing sushi bar draws the eye in the main room, while a big-screen TV is the centerpiece in the other, with light wood floors and a neutral color palette throughout. The TVs are rarely on unless customers request a game, and never with sound. Candles are lit at your table after you settle in, and the whole vibe is something more akin to a cocktail lounge than an Asian-fusion spot.
But back to those ribs. They’re listed on the expansive menu as one of a handful of “robata” options. (Short for robatayaki, translated as fireside cooking, this traditional Japanese cooking method is a cousin of barbecue and involves slow-cooking bite-size pieces over charcoal.) Naturally, there are “cold plate” options (think ceviche) to balance, and then a list of traditional sushi-spot appetizers, seafood-focused entrees and a separate sushi menu. Our server, Quin, swooped in just as our eyes started to glaze over from food-decision overload.
There’s usually something cringe-worthy in the way a server offers to guide first-time customers through a menu, but this time, the guidance was welcomed. The robata dishes, he explained, are sharable, but small. Smaller than a traditional appetizer, even. Advice heeded, we ordered shrimp and mushrooms on our first visit. Lightly charred, the shrimp arrived first, two to a plate. The portion was underwhelming, but the flavor wasn’t. The charcoal grill had left a subtle smokiness, rather than drying out the oversized bites. On another visit, we quickly caved and ordered the ribs. Word to the wise: Go ahead and get two orders. At $7, it’s one of the least expensive orders on the robata menu. And with three ribs to an order, there will be disappointed appetites without the second helping. The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender, with an extra layer of crunchy charred bits—excellent, if you like that kind of thing—and a citrusy kick to the barbecue sauce, thanks to the ponzu.
Although barbecue as a prelude to an oversized platter of complicated sushi rolls could be an incongruent mess, Kemuri’s counter to this is twofold: First, plating. Ribs don’t come out as a half-rack with a Wet-Nap on the side. Instead, a pile of thinly sliced veggies rests opposite the stacked ribs, a careful swipe of sauce connecting the two on a rectangular plate. It’s the same intricate plating that’s seen on the long trays of sushi, which come sitting on long banana leaves or finished with a flower garnish.
The second part of making charcoal-grilled meat starters meld with a meal of fresh raw fish? Flavor. No matter the dish, there’s a Japanese-inspired twist. Arkansas-centric entrees like beef tenderloin or roasted game hen are upgraded by bok choy, ponzu-spiked sauces and shiitake mushrooms. Conversely, sushi rolls get the occasional grill-influenced touch. The Louisiana roll—stuffed with crawfish—comes topped with a spicy, smoky aioli.
Sure, the majority of the specialty rolls can claim at least one ingredient from American sushi’s unholy trinity—cream cheese, fried stuff and a creamy sauce. This is Little Rock, after all. Hell, sometimes that creamy sauce works for the best (like on the otherwise too-fiery Spicy Lady).
And if all the charcoal, seafood and sushi are too much to handle, just look for Quin. He’ll set you straight.